The church of San Lorenzo, now reduced to a state of ruin, was a short distance from the castle of Vinci, on one of the Montalbano slopes descending toward the Val di Streda. Leonardo knew these areas very well, where his family, as evidenced by tax declarations, owned working lands. And it is precisely for this area, so rich in waterways, that Leonardo planned, near Serravalle, an artificial lake, for which three maps still exist. The ruins of the church of San Lorenzo can be reached along one of the "Paths of the Genius", the Path of San Lorenzo, immersed in the landscape of Leonardo’s olive groves and vineyards.
The first trace of the existence of this church dates back to the mid-13th century, when it belonged with certainty to the family of the Counts Guidi, former lords of Vinci, Cerreto, and several other castles in the area. The church of San Lorenzo de Armiano—so it was called—was listed among the assets the powerful noble family was induced to yield to Florence in 1254. At that time, in fact, the city was engaged in the establishment of its territorial domination, eroding, in some cases, the territorial structures of stronger castle lords, who were grappling, during the mid-13th century, with dynastic crises and financial disruption. The sale in 1254, carried out by the Counts Guido Guerra and Ruggero, included, together with partial shares of the castle and of the church of Vinci, the entire Ecclesia de Armiano.
At the beginning of the 16th century, when the nearby San Pantaleo was annexed (1506), the church of San Lorenzo in Arniano was still in good condition. After the middle of the century, we find many more references to the bad condition of the building. In 1575 it required restoration, as reported in the pastoral visits of the time, to the extent that, as it would appear, the rector was required to stay at the nearby Santa Lucia a Paterno. In 1616, the church of San Lorenzo "manifesta ruina", that is, it threatened to collapse, to the extent that its rector asked to be able to officiate exclusively in the nearby church of Santa Lucia. Ultimately, he asked for the unsafe building to be demolished. The bishop ordered the parishioners to restore the church on an urgent basis, under penalty of demolition within three months. The community probably was not able to do it. The furnishings of the church were ordered to be transferred to Santa Lucia, including a beautiful canvas depicting the titular saint, San Lorenzo and the Virgin and Child, which was later described as "very ancient and beautiful" (1735), "an ancient painting, superb [...]. It would appear to be by Ghirlandaio" (1756). The church of San Lorenzo has recently been identified in one of the farmhouses along the Via di San Lorenzo—today in ruins—which still retains some pieces of the original masonry. The same building is also represented by Leonardo in one of the maps that illustrate the project of the artificial lake he wanted to build just downstream from the Arniano slope. In the map of the Capitani di Parte Guelfa depicting the community of San Lorenzo a rgnano, we can see the profile of the church as it must have appeared to Leonardo’s eyes: a small single-chamber oratory with a gabled roof and bell gable on the back of the roof.
Leonardo knew these places very well. Browsing through the properties that his father declared in the 1498 land registry, we can see many lands located in the community of San Lorenzo Angnani: “lands for cultivation, olive groves, wooded areas, and lands containing vines” (vineyards), as well as at least two farmhouses, “uncovered, without roof or beams”, that were situated in the places called Gello and Novelleta. The small localities of the da Vinci family farms in the San Lorenzo area can be accurately identified today. The same names are found, in fact, both in the late 16th-century maps by the Capitani di Parte Guelfa and in the subsequent historical cartography relating to this part of the Vinci countryside. The landscape is that of the western slopes of Montalbano, those that face toward the castle of Vinci and which we can still admire today. It is today possible to retrace the "Path of San Lorenzo", in the footsteps of Leonardo, within the program "Paths of the Genius".
Silvia Leporatti / English translation by John Venerella